For most players and coaches, goals in the NFL are fairly similar. Win championships, be successful, make a lot of money, etc. Most are fine with reaching those goals in whatever order they come, but all of them desire to close the same way: as a world champion. The dream of “going out on top” has permeated sports culture for decades. But on Wednesday night, former Bucs head coach Bruce Arians flipped convention on its’ head with his decision to retire from coaching.
The decision stunned the football world, but not me. Not after I had a minute to think about it. Reading Peter King’s news-breaking interview with Arians that announced the coach’s transition to the front office, it was clear what Arians’ priorities were in his decision. It’s simply stunning for people to hear because it almost never happens in the world of coaching, or from leadership roles in general.
“Succession has always been huge for me,” Arians told King. “With the organization in probably the best shape it’s been in its history, with Tom Brady coming back. I’d rather see Todd [Bowles] in position to be successful and not have to take some [crappy] job. I’m probably retiring next year anyway, in February. So, I control the narrative right now. I don’t control it next February because [if] Brady gets hurt, we go 10-7, and it’s an open interview for the job. I got 31 [coaches and their] families that depend on me. My wife is big on not letting all those families down.”
But Arians, The Timing!
Arians retiring from a team with the best Super Bowl odds in the NFC and Tom Brady at quarterback is mind-boggling to most people. They can’t fathom having a free agency period like the Bucs just did, re-signing most of their big names, adding key players from other teams, and then walking away.
The NFC is in shambles, and the division is even worse. Tampa Bay’s stock is skyrocketing. And another ring for Arians would greatly bolster his Hall of Fame resume. Right now, he’s no lock for induction despite having a strong case. But with a second Super Bowl trophy on the shelf? It would be almost impossible to keep Arians out of the Hall. “The timing just doesn’t make sense!”. That’s a popular refrain echoing through the depths of sports media this morning.
Bucs QB Tom Brady and head coach Bruce Arians – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
None of that is lost on Arians. It just doesn’t matter to him as much as caring for the people around him. By the way, Arians has told us this every step of the way. Maybe we just weren’t listening enough. But the NFL’s greatest straight shooter has been clear the whole time. His return to coaching has always been about his staff and the players – and the relationships he has with the people around him.
“Everything lined up perfectly, from ownership, to general manager, who is a great friend, to all of my assistants being available,” Arians said after taking the job in Tampa Bay following his first retirement. “Frankly, I probably wouldn’t have taken the job had some of those assistants not been available.”
Over his career, Arians has become famous for his pro coach rhetoric. He famously said he would “fire” any staff member logging extra hours and missing their kids’ events. Arians also constantly praises the work of his assistants when players perform well, knowing how rarely position coaches receive deserved attention. In fact, the 69-year old was furious the past two years, when offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich and defensive coordinator Todd Bowles didn’t receive head coaching opportunities.
“I was very, very pissed Byron at least didn’t get an interview this year,” Arians said following the 2020 season. “For the job that he’s done – I get way too much credit and so does Tom Brady. I think next year people will see. He took Jameis Winston — who broke every single record here for scoring and passing. And now Tom has broken both.”
Leftwich received a single interview this past year, in Jacksonville. But he wasn’t hired for the job despite being a frontrunner, instead returning to the Bucs. Meanwhile, Bowles received a plethora of interviews, but wasn’t a finalist for any jobs. As I’ve reported before on the Pewter Report Podcast, it wasn’t a secret around the league that new opportunities for Bowles were going to be limited moving forward. More than one source I spoke with suggested future interest in Bowles as a head coach candidate could be minimal.
If I heard it from multiple people, I’m sure Arians heard it as well. When asked about it this offseason, Arians didn’t hold back.
“It really pisses me off,” Arians said a month ago. “Two years now, they both should be head coaches. I don’t know what’s going on with the process.”
But Arians’ frustration didn’t stop him from recognizing the unique opportunity in front of him. At nearly 70 years old, Arians knew retirement was near. But when Tom Brady retired, Arians wasn’t going to leave his staff hanging with a team in transition. He knew Bowles would be hired as his successor, and he wanted to set his friend up in a better situation than that. So Arians stayed on, determined to guide the Bucs into their next chapter before handing the reins to Bowles.
Bucs DC Todd Bowles and HC Bruce Arians – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
“It hit me after the Super Bowl,” Arians told King. “I thought really hard about going out on top. Then it was like, ‘nah, let’s go for two’. [The 2021 season] was a grind with all the injuries, but still winning and getting to where we got. Immediately after, two to three weeks afterwards [I thought] … if I quit, my coaches get fired. I couldn’t do it then.”
However, things changed when Tom Brady decided to return after a 40-day retirement. The presence of the Bucs’ quarterback sent the team back into win-now mode, with a smashingly successful free agent period. Center Ryan Jensen, wide receiver Chris Godwin and cornerback Carlton Davis all signed long-term deals with the Bucs. And the team added key outside talent like DB Logan Ryan, OG Shaq Mason and WR Russell Gage. With the NFC leaking talent daily, the Bucs were in clear position to contend for a Super Bowl title.
“I wanted to ensure when I walked away that Todd Bowles would have the best opportunity to succeed,” Arians said in his official statement. “So many head coaches come into situations where they are set up for failure. I didn’t want that for Todd.”
Many coaches would have left when the going was rough. But not Arians. He waited until Bowles was positioned with a clear winning roster around him. Then he announced his transition to the front office. Many coaches talk the talk. But when the chips are down, they do what’s best for themselves. Arians knew he could “go out on top” this year, the dream of most of his colleagues. Instead, he chose to get Bowles started on top, a far cry from most head coaching jobs the defensive coordinator would have walked into on another franchise.
Arians’ Legacy Is Clear
This is who Arians has always been. Although he has been heralded his entire career as a trailblazer for diversity and inclusivity, the reality is he rarely speaks about those topics. And when he does, he doesn’t say a ton. Sure, he’s articulated his opinion on things when asked in the media. But more than anything, Arians has let his actions do the talking. He’s understood what it takes to bring about real change. Talking is cheap. What you do, not what you tweet or say into a microphone, is what makes a lasting difference.
Bucs HC Bruce Arians, run game coordinator Harold Goodwin and OC Byron Leftwich – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
As a result, the Bucs coaching staff has three black coordinators, as well as a black assistant head coach in Harold Goodwin. And at least 12 coaches on the current staff are people of color, including likely new co-defensive coordinators Larry Foote and Kacy Rodgers. Arians also hired two women to his staff, Lori Locust and Maral Javadifar. Those moves made the Bucs the first NFL franchise to hire two full-time women as coaches.
I’ll talk more about that part on the Pewter Report Podcast later today. CBS’ Jonathan Jones has already written more eloquently than I ever could about Arians’ ally-ship. Arians entire life, and especially his three-year coaching tenure in Tampa Bay, has screamed what is important to him. More than winning, Arians has always loved and valued people. And he loves winning. That should tell you something.
So go ahead with your fake narratives and your BS stories for clicks. Go ahead with the idea that Arians went out on any terms other than his own. But he’s stepping away from coaching exactly how he wanted to. Giving an opportunity for Bowles to become a head coach again. For Leftwich to completely run his own show on offense, without Arians’ input on game days. For Foote and Rodgers to become coordinators, something Arians has long said both men deserve. And for all of those coaches to be in a winning situation when they received those opportunities.
Arians understood the assignment. He always has. And now, he’s solidifying his legacy the way he wants to. Not as a Super Bowl champ, although he’s that too. But as an advocate for human beings.
That sounds like going out on top to me.